While it is very pleasing to see attention turn to degree apprenticeships this week, the central message is that these programmes still need a far higher profile, which I, for one, am more than happy to give them.
Universities UK’s report The Future of Degree Apprenticeships acclaims the programmes as a “growing success story”, which we at Derby can attest to.
Since we announced the launch of our first degree apprenticeships in 2017, we have seen the opportunities both multiply and diversify, and long may that continue.
We’ve become trailblazers in areas such as policing, nursing and teaching, in addition to the more traditional apprenticeship sectors, such as engineering and mineral production. We are hopeful of adding a hospitality programme to that list too, having concluded a very promising consultation process with industry partners.
Earning and learning
Earning and learning is a real incentive for young people: it’s a foot on the career leader, a skilled trade, a wage and a higher-level qualification neatly packaged together.
Employers are acquiring recruits who they know will have the graduate-level skills and knowledge that adds real value to their company or organisation, supports social mobility and helps to diversify the workplace.
Through our partnership with Nottinghamshire Police, which led the sector in developing the first UK Police Constable Degree Apprenticeship, we have provided a new education route that engages with historically hard to reach communities for police recruitment.
This has resulted in more than 50% of the cohort being first in their family to enter higher education, increased BAME participation in the training by 100%, and doubled the number of BAME applicants for policing. It also increased the number of female recruits to 50% of all new entrants.
Increasing knowledge of degree apprenticeships
For higher education providers, particularly those, like Derby, committed to delivering the applied, real world approach to teaching and learning, degree apprenticeships fuse the academic with the vocational and enrich our offer to students enormously.
However, the slightly worrying statistic the report gives us is that four out of five year 10 and 12 school pupils have little or no knowledge of degree apprenticeships.[i]
It means that by the time that they are beginning their GCSEs at 14, and even their A-Levels or their FE programmes at 16, the option of a degree apprenticeship is not part of their career planning.
And yet, as the research and focus group discussions found in the preparation of the report, once pupils and parents understand the degree apprenticeship notion they are enthusiastic about it.[ii]
Understandably, of the 24 recommendations made in the report, the one that Universities UK brings to the fore is that “government should lead a campaign to promote the benefits of degree apprenticeships to employers and the public, including better careers information and guidance at an earlier age in schools, and UCAS should make the application system for degree apprenticeships as straightforward as it is for undergraduate degrees.”[iii]
I think this is where we can play a role too. Universities have invested considerably in their outreach activity and their liaison work with schools and colleges. Many of us are utterly committed to having a positive impact on social mobility, creating opportunities and raising aspirations among young people in particular, and have built links and engagement opportunities for delivering the degree apprenticeship message.
An important HE alternative
Degree apprenticeships have created a route to level 6 or 7 qualifications for students who might otherwise have felt daunted by the idea of embarking on a fully academic degree, particularly if they have no one in their family who has entered higher education before.
The programmes are also more closely attuned to the need to fill identified skills and knowledge gaps in our region’s economy because they must be as responsive as any other role in a business to the day-to-day shifts in demand. They often provide a flexibility that isn’t so easy to apply to campus-based degrees as to the length of the programme.
And they have the advantage of embedding skills and knowledge that the employer does not already possess. This, of course, doesn’t just apply to new entrants, but increasingly to existing employees, keen to improve their own abilities through upskilling, helping to give themselves an advantage over the competition, as well as their company, when times turn tough.
Degree apprenticeships not only hone the know-how of participants, but they can help lift productivity and quality as a direct consequence. Leadership and management traits are also developed in individuals who feel empowered by the acquisition of a complete understanding of both theory and practice in their chosen career and sector.
Bringing employers on board
Of course, with such distinct advantages to speak of, there is the inevitable question of why they are not more prevalent.
It seems, as UUK has discovered, that they remain a poorly understood option not just for school pupils approaching the critical stages of their secondary education, but for parents, teachers and careers advisors.
And while the experience of creating hundreds of regular apprenticeships – including degree apprenticeships – has been overwhelmingly positive for Derby, it is also apparent that many employers are still to be convinced that this is a route they are willing to take with universities.
There is a cost – the Apprenticeship Levy – to employers who have a wage bill of more than £3m per year, calculated at roughly 0.5% of their payroll total, although public services, such as the NHS, are exempt, and businesses which pay out a smaller combined amount to their staff have up to 90% of their levy costs met by the government.[iv]
Companies have inevitably asked whether this is, in fact, an additional tax on their activity, and a cost they can do without.
The role of government and universities, therefore, is to take a two-pronged approach to raising the profile of degree apprenticeships, and create the demand for them among young people and those looking to retrain or upskill.
We must simultaneously demonstrate to employers that the considerable benefits of higher productivity and meeting skills needs outweigh the financial costs the levy imposes on firms.
The positive case studies that our current cohort of degree
apprentices is generating – in policing, nursing, teaching, engineering and
others besides – can help us to achieve both of those aims because, as the
saying goes, nothing sells like success.
[i] The Future of Degree Apprenticeships, Universities UK, July 2019